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Tension between devout Shiites, secular groups threaten Iraq's future

BAGHDAD, Iraq_ The significance of the new Iraqi government was plain at prayers throughout Baghdad last week, as cries of "Victory to Islam!" echoed through Shiite Muslim mosques where worshipers celebrated leaders that look, think and pray like them.

With Iraq's first Islamist-led government since the fall of the Ottoman Empire expected to formally take office this week, it's getting harder for the Bush administration to realize its dream of molding the nation into a secular, inclusive democracy. Instead, the January elections gave rise to a conservative Shiite brain trust with close ties to Iran and power enough to make its secular rivals nervous.

The tensions between Iraq's Shiite Islamists and American-backed secularists also threaten two important goals for the United States and Iraq: drafting a permanent constitution and organizing full national elections by the end of the year. One of the largest secular blocs, overseen by the caretaker Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, cited the new government's Islamist nature as one of the reasons it opted out of Cabinet positions.

Allawi and other disenchanted secularists are plotting a comeback, betting that Iraqis will return to their more moderate tradition once they tire of leaders who remind them of the mullahs next door in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"We respect all pious men and the marjaiya (Shiite clerical council), but we also believe there should be no direct intervention by them in daily issues," said Rasim al Awadi of the Iraqi National Accord, Allawi's party.

The thorniest religious-political issues are the role of Islam in the constitution, how Sunni Arabs will be incorporated into decision-making and the extent of the Shiites' anticipated purge of former regime members from Iraq's embattled security forces. Then there's the violence that disrupts daily life across the war-weary country and arguments over the best way to deal with an insurgency that still strikes at will.

Guiding those debates is Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al Jaafari, a soft-spoken Shiite physician and Islamic scholar who won't shake hands with women. Three of his five most important Cabinet posts belong to a Shiite coalition anchored by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Iran-backed, dominant Shiite political party. Some of their lawmakers seemed to gloat Friday—and hint of friction to come—when they burst into religious chants at the nationally televised session where a Cabinet was finally approved after three months of negotiation.

In another example of the new government's ideology appearing on a public stage, Jaafari's Dawa Party held an anniversary gala last week at which Dawa leaders extolled Jaafari as a Shiite "evangelical" and praised the conservative movement sweeping across the country.

"Iraq has turned into a big mosque—schools and universities and streets have become mosques," Khudair al Khuzai, a Dawa spokesman, told the audience.

While those words make secular Iraqis cringe, some Iraqis say it's important not to mistake religious rhetoric for political capital. Anyone pushing an Islamist agenda must first get past the staunchly secular Kurds, the second biggest bloc after the Shiite coalition. And despite Allawi's pass on leadership posts, there are still secular Shiites in the Cabinet and in the national assembly who are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a new government beholden to turbaned clerics.

Among them is Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial politician who ran on Jaafari's ticket and is now the deputy prime minister and acting oil minister. Nabil al Musawi, a spokesman for Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, said the religious fervor sweeping through the government and Iraqi society simply must run its course.

"This is the way people react after long periods of dictatorship. They tend to jump from one extreme to the other," al Musawi said. "But they will eventually move to the middle ground, and they'll find us there."

Already, ordinary Iraqis complain that the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite juggernaut that swept Jaafari and other Islamists into power, hasn't lived up to its pre-election image as an inclusive ticket with a cross-section of candidates. That image died when Alliance leaders slapped the grandfatherly face of the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani on campaign posters in a shrewd move that turned a vote for the list into a vote for Shiite Islam.

Giddy with religious freedom after decades of brutal oppression under Saddam, Shiites overwhelmingly cast ballots for what they deemed "the Sistani list."

Since the elections, the Alliance has lost its few token Sunni Arabs, who withdrew last week amid complaints that their views were marginalized. Then talks between Jaafari, part of the Alliance, and independent Sunni Arab politicians broke down. The reason: Shiite leaders uniformly rejected the Sunnis' candidates for Cabinet positions because of their alleged ties to the old regime.

"There are only four Turkmen Sunni candidates within the Alliance now. There are no Arab Sunnis," said Ali al Dabagh of the Shiite coalition. "The Arab Sunnis acted on their own personal decisions. They wanted Cabinet positions that we couldn't give them and we couldn't force the other Sunnis to accept Sunni candidates from our list."

Sunni leaders have little pull in the new government; their constituents either boycotted the vote or stayed away for fear of insurgent retaliation. However, they do have valuable inroads into the nation's largely Sunni insurgency, and could act as negotiators to end the violence if included in a meaningful way. They were hoping to trade that asset for amnesty for some former regime members and a promise to accept their own candidates for defense minister, a post promised to a Sunni.

With negotiations at an impasse with the Sunnis, Jaafari himself was forced to take on the vital portfolio. The premier vowed to install a defense minister this week, but Sunni leaders are standing firm: they won't accept anyone but their candidates and predicted a speedy downfall for Jaafari if he continues to govern according to a Shiite-first agenda.

"If they select someone else, we'll refuse it and boycott this government, which is based on sectarian principles and won't succeed," said Fakhri al Qaisy, a spokesman for the National Dialogue Council, the group of independent Sunnis.

Jaafari, meanwhile, is urging his rivals to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. His camp characterizes the discord as merely growing pains and insists that soon Iraq will have a leadership that incorporates all of Iraq's ethnic and religious diversity.

As he told journalists at a briefing Sunday in Baghdad: "For those accusing this government of being based on sectarian divisions, our reply will be through our performance."


(Knight Ridder special correspondents Yasser J. Salihee and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ibrahim al Jaafari

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050217 USIRAQ seats